Alaska lawmaker can’t block public from social accounts based on their views, judge rules

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, speaks Tuesday, May 10, 2022 on the floor of the Alaska Senate at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

An Alaska state legislator can’t block members of the public who they disagree with from commenting on a social media account the lawmaker maintains in connection with her elective office, a judge has ruled.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews said in a decision he issued Friday that the account is a limited public forum where the legislator can’t discriminate against someone based on their viewpoint.

The ruling was in the case of Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold, who a constituent sued after being blocked on a Facebook page that Reinbold kept under the name “Senator Lora Reinbold.”

Matthews ruled that Reinbold was a “government actor” when she banned Bobbie McDow from the page, which was different from another page Reinbold kept without her legislative title. And he ruled that it was a limited public forum, which means that Reinbold could only impose narrow and viewpoint-neutral restrictions.

But Matthews stopped short of resolving the case, since he said there are still some facts that are in dispute over why Reinbold blocked McDow.

McDow said Reinbold blocked her after she criticized Reinbold’s response to COVID-19. Reinbold said she blocked McDow because she had engaged in religious discrimination and called for Reinbold to resign.

Reinbold’s term ends on Jan. 3 – she did not run for re-election, citing legal expenses in defending herself in the lawsuit as one reason. Reinbold made national news when she was banned by Alaska Airlines for refusing to follow its COVID-19 mask requirement.

The Legislative Council, which includes members of both the Senate and House, adopted a policy in September that if legislators remove constituents’ comments or block them on social media, they may forfeit state-paid legal protection.

Nick Feronti, McDow’s lawyer, said Matthews’ ruling would have significant implications for how legislators handle their social media accounts.

“I think he made a very free-speech-friendly ruling today and now all that’s left is to sort out the discrimination part,” Feronti said.

He expressed confidence it was clear that Reinbold discriminated against McDow based on her having different views.

He said that to McDow, “it’s very much about an important principle, which is just, you’re allowed to talk online and not have someone delete your comments or block you” from an elected official’s account.

Reinbold said she would have to talk with her lawyer before commenting on the ruling.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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